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Security firms adopt military tactics to fight rhino poachers

From Diana Magnay, CNN
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Progress against poaching
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • South Africa is losing a rhino every day to poachers
  • Some private anti-poaching firms are adopting military-style training
  • Scouts operate in pairs, living out in the bush for 15 days at a time
  • Rhino horn is highly valued in the Far East, and is a staple of traditional Chinese medicine

North West Province, South Africa (CNN) -- Continued rhino poaching in South Africa is causing some security firms to adopt military tactics in their battle against the poachers.

The rhino has no predator in the African bush besides man, but for centuries these majestic creatures have fallen prey to man's greed. They are killed as trophies, as well as for the mythical properties of their horn, which is highly valued in the Far East as a staple of traditional Chinese medicine.

Faan Coetzee, of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, told CNN, "Rhino horn consists of two components, keratin and melanin. That's what it is. And it has been proven that there's no medicinal value in rhino horn. That's scientifically proven."

But the continued slaughter would suggest that the Far East doesn't accept the science.

The killing has moved south over the last few decades, almost driving the black rhino to extinction. It has also concentrated the white rhino population in South Africa, where park rangers are waging war on the poaching syndicates.

Rusty Hustler is head of security for South Africa's North West Parks and Tourism Board. The Pilanesberg Game Reserve has lost seven rhinos this year and Hustler has around 30 trackers to patrol its 60,000 hectares -- almost 150,000 acres.

That's like trying to find a needle in a haystack, he said, especially when many of the poachers have military backgrounds.

"There are some South African citizens involved, there are illegal immigrants -- Mozambicans, Zimbabweans -- so it's a mixture," Hustler told CNN.

"I think it's a throwback from the various wars that we've had around South Africa that people have been trained in military tactics, and now that they've got nothing else to do they carry it on this way. And it's quick money."

You need someone who can handle it, who can take the brunt, and obviously has a lot of compassion.
--Simon Rood, Nkwe Wildlife Security Services
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That's why private anti-poaching firms operate with full military discipline.

Nkwe Wildlife Security Services trains its recruits for a year before they're taken on full-time. Only one in eight make the grade.

"It's very hard, it's very intense," said Simon Rood, of Nkwe Wildlife Security Services. "So, you need someone who can handle it, who can take the brunt, and obviously has a lot of compassion. They enjoy what they're doing."

Scouts operate in pairs, living out in the bush for 15 days at a time. They live a military-style life, tracking the whereabouts of rhino and patrolling for poachers while living among the most dangerous animals on earth.

"The guys don't wash; this is how they live, sleeping bag, they're not allowed to make fires, they cook on a little paraffin stove," said Rood.

Rood is an ex-military man himself and believes this commando-style level of security is the only way to effectively fight poachers. He says he's never lost a rhino on the private game parks he looks after.

"If a guy's got a property, he's got a lot of rhino," said Rood. "He lives in the city where he's got state-of-the-art security -- well, he must do the same for his rhino."

A rhino cow is worth some $40,000 to the farmers. Their horns are worth something similar to poachers -- around $7,500 per kilogram at current black market rates.

Some game owners have tried de-horning their rhinos to deter the poachers, but Coetzee told CNN de-horning isn't the answer.

"You've got 20 rhino on your farm, you dehorn them all and you sit with 40 rhino horn in your possession, and that's exactly what the rhino poachers are after -- and they've got rifles," he said.

"They will come to your house and get [them] from you -- either kill you or take [them] from you."

South Africa is losing a rhino every day to the poacher's gun, but the battle to protect this species begins on the medicine shelf.

China has used powdered rhino horn in its medicines for 2,000 years, and African game keepers can only do so much to change the culture of faraway nations.